May We Admire You is our column in which we shine a spotlight on someone we think is pretty kick-ass. Our goal is to honor the accomplishments of a person, company, or group we respect and to expose their awesomeness to the world.
Frida Oskarsdottir spoke to Kirthika Parmeswaran, CEO of SugarTool, an app in development focused on neonatal health that was recently a finalist in the Penn Center for Innovations AppItUp competition. Kirthika and her all-women team of physicians envision a future where new mothers are empowered with medical knowledge about their newborns, and as a result, their babies are healthier.
Frida: So tell me more about SugarTool.
Kirthika: SugarTool is an evidence-based, digital health app focused on the screening and treatment of low blood sugar conditions in newborn babies, called neonatal hypoglycemia. One in three babies in the United States is actually at risk for this condition, and it’s a growing risk. There are a few reasons; the baby could be pre-term or born to a mother who is diabetic or has gestational diabetes. A newborn brain is dependent largely on glucose, and at birth, the regulation of glucose is very sluggish. An adverse effect of this is that it can lead to seizures or even brain damage. Our goal is also to shine a light on all these issues.
Frida: Before founding this company, were you involved in the medical field?
Kirthika: Actually, my background is in telecommunications. I began my career in research and development and did a lot of work in emerging technologies, but I got intrigued by this notion of bringing new ideas to market. I got a degree in technology management, which got me more into the business side of tech.
Most recently I became involved with the Penn Center for Innovation (PCI), which is part of the University of Pennsylvania. PCI’s goal is to incubate the technology. The way it works is that there are “founders,” who are subject matter experts. In our case, the founders are physicians working at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. PCI matches founders with folks with business and product development expertise, like me. So I came in as a CEO with the aim of taking it to market.
Frida: Where are you at now in the process of bringing SugarTool to the market?
Kirthika: This is a really early stage, actually! SugarTool was formed through PCI’s AppItUp competition earlier this year. Out of 300 entries, we were chosen along with five other applicants in the end. Right now, we’ve just begun doing pitches, looking at other sources of funding, and talking to people throughout the eco-system.
Frida: What do you think it takes to get chosen out of 300 competitors?
Kirthika: In this case it was the problem we’re tackling. It has to be something unique and something that brings true value. The reason I joined this company was firstly that I was a gestational diabetic mother during one of my pregnancies, and I had no clue what to do, because I wasn’t from the medical field. I want to be in the position that I can empower other moms and other people with this problem.
It’s unique in the technology field because we see a lot about driverless cars, artificial intelligence. If you see medicine, it’s focused on oncology. But often people aren’t focusing on something as fundamental as newborn care. It’s a niche problem with enough challenges that it’s made for an exciting and interesting topic to get into.
Frida: In terms of the logistics of using the app, is this something to be used by new mothers and clinicians, or just one or the other?
Kirthika: That’s a big part of our offering. First, we’ll have a risk assessment for babies for certain conditions, including neonatal hypoglycemia. Secondly, there will be a cognitive, or machine learning, aspect. To answer your question, the third aspect brings together the nurses and doctors at the hospital, the pediatrician, and the mother or caregiver. Malpractice suits have come from babies not being screened properly before discharge, then being rushed to the ER later. We want to bring an integrated view across these different people.
Frida: What would you say you spend your time doing in the role of CEO?
Kirthika: Definitely being a product evangelist. It has to come from passion, you have to be clear, and you have to be able to drive the product. I’m talking to so many different people all the time! Then there’s product management, looking at the market, positioning, how to build a profitable business. The founders and I don’t want to be limited to the United States, we want this to be global. There are countries where mothers cannot even reach hospitals, and as a mobile app, SugarTool could be a form of global outreach.
Frida: Is it quite unique to have a start-up team that’s all women?
Kirthika: That is one thing that we are very proud of! In this case, a lot of us are mothers and we have this inclination to do better for other mothers. I think there should be many more all-women teams and I’m sure there are a lot that we don’t even know about.